"After a year of operations, due to burst appendix and hernia, my
doctor suggested some gentle swimming to stretch the body.
"I joined a
small club and forced myself to slowly swim in the warm water. But this
past month the gym has taken in classes and classes of toddlers from
nearby nursery schools, and I feel I am swimming in kids urine!
being silly? Does the chlorine kill the urine? I just have not been able
to get in the water as it all seems so not clean."
- Reader query from
the EnviroHealth Forum
What lurks beneath the sparkling surface?
Swimming strengthens the body while the water buoys it up and protects
against exercise-related injury, making it a popular and frequently
recommended therapy for people recovering from an injury, operation or
The benefits of this are certainly likely to outweigh
the potential health dangers associated with public pools.
But it’s not silly to be concerned about the risks, even if they are
low - especially if you’re in a physically vulnerable state.
Just about any pool will contain pollutants, although these should be
minimal if the pool is well maintained, as required by law.
introduce various pollutants from their bodies (e.g. suncream and
cosmetics) and the disinfectants used to clean the pool also add to the
If your immune system is compromised, as may be the case if you've been
ill or recently had surgery, you are more vulnerable to infection by
any micro-organisms in the water.
You may also be more vulnerable to the
negative effects of disinfectant chemicals like chlorine, although most
studies on this show that the health risks apply mainly to children and
people who spend many hours in the pool environment, like professional
The real nasty: human waste
Urine itself is not really a concern, although it can react with the
disinfectants to produce unhealthy chemicals. Far more serious is being
exposed to faecal matter in the pool, which is definitely more of a risk
when swimming with small children! If anyone defecates in a pool, it
should be immediately cleared of swimmers and not used until it has been
Even if there isn’t direct defecation in the water, small amounts of
faecal matter can actually be carried in on people’s bodies. This is why
it’s often suggested that swimmers shower before swimming, to remove
traces of organic pollutants and also cosmetics that would otherwise end
up in the pool. If this isn’t a requirement at your club or gym, you
might suggest that it become so – or at least ask if a notice can be put
up suggesting it.
Stay clean and safe
- Find out when children’s swimming classes are held so that you can avoid them if possible.
- Don’t swallow the pool water, keep your eyes closed underwater, and have a shower immediately after swimming.
- Don't swim if you have any open cuts or sores.
- Don’t spend longer in the pool than you need to do your exercises.
- If you notice any worrisome symptoms, such as rash, diarrhoea or eye
irritation, then definitely stop using the pool until you’ve consulted
- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor. @ORoseInn
Image: Child at pool edge: Shutterstock.
Olivia Rose-Innes is Health24’s EnviroHealth Editor. Read more of her columns and articles or post a question to her expert forum.